The Dark Side of Digitization


If we were to base our judgement of digitization on certain accounts, the future would look bright. The long promised efficiency which is expected from technology will eventually be achieved. No more tedious manual work will be necessary. People will be able to “focus on more interesting problems” and, as the story goes, the error rate of diagnoses, fraud prevention/detection and defense systems would soon become negligible. To those who are inclined to believe in fairy tales, this perfect picture of a super-efficient, technology-driven, future society will look great, won’t it? Yet, I think, there is a much overlooked dark side of the coin. It is the long-term social effects of replacing human work with automatons. Generally, technical solutions are desirable when they tackle problems in a way which is beneficial to the highest number of people. Is digitization one such case? It depends on how it is approached. I contend that the current hype may in some cases betray a number of dangerous misconceptions:

Misconception 1.      Reducing manual work is always beneficial

Work is, among other things, vocation, occupation and profession. At work people socialize, build relations, nurture friendships. Right or wrong, western culture has elevated professional activity to the rank of a personality-defining aspect. When people will work less, (or not at all), something else will have to fill this gap. Personally I see this as beneficial. I have always perceived with suspicion the atomistic myth of  professional success at the expense of a miserable social life. But changing this will require time and, if not properly managed, can lead to unrest. Are we prepared to manage the transition? Are our omniscient Artificial Intelligence robots giving us any insight on how to approach this problem? I don’t think so. And then, how will the future consumeristic economy be fuelled with an increasing number of unemployed people? Who will buy the goods which will be produced so efficiently? Who will be able to pay for these services? A new society need be shaped, before the much wanted digitization can be made sense of. The rest is only a lot of talk, solutionism and technology-centrism, the myth that technology is the answer to any problem.

Misconception 2.      Artificial Intelligence will replace Human Intelligence to an ever increasing extent

Artificial Intelligence will enable new computing scenarios which will complement human intellect in many ways. This is particularly true in the context of cognitive intelligence. And this is indeed an exciting scenario. But mentation is a lot more than cognition. And only someone with a very limited understanding of what is a human being, can indeed think that a computable function can be a replacement for the wealth of psychological treats and social behaviours which are associated with the spontaneous action of people. The idea that mentation is a computable function has further socially destabilising consequences. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that Artificial Intelligence fanatics are right. So, human mentation is a computable function. Functions are deterministic by design: given an input, they return an output. But most social contracts have been built over thousands years on the assumption that there is such a thing as personal accountability for our actions. And this can only exist if one has free will. But how can one make a free decision if mentation is nothing more than a computable function? A serial killer would be just someone whose mentation implements the wrong computable function. How could he be accountable for producing outputs which could not have been otherwise? If we think we are ready to accept the weird (yet, admittedly, theoretically possible) idea that mentation is a computable function, than we must also be prepared to renounce the idea of personal accountability, and delete the concept of free will from our dictionaries.

Misconception 3.      The efficiency of digitization is universally beneficial

This efficiency is mostly beneficial to a few people, who can use digitization to optimise their businesses and increase profitability. But these people are a only tiny minority of those affected by it. The vast majority of people will be personally affected for the worse. Some say that more interesting jobs will be created. But this is a mystification. Let’s get real: in the past, the most relevant corporations, like General Motors, employed hundreds thousands people. Nowadays, corporations like Google and Apple make more money and employ a much smaller number of people. And not everyone is “up to” the level required to be employed by such companies. What this will amount to, I need not tell you. You do the math.

I advance that these misconceptions, and possibly more, are plaguing the current over-hyped idea of digitization and, as such, will prevent ordinary people from reaping benefits they can make sense of. One may object that it is easy to criticise ideas, but it is more difficult to devise alternatives. I accept the objection. My answer to this is articulated in my essay “Post-Anthropomorphic Sensorial Computing” which the interested reader will find at this address:

Should then people resist digitization altogether? Simply put, no. But oversimplifications may kill the idea and make it difficult to get digitization right. Good digitization is about empowering individuals, not getting rid of them. Claiming that a computer can “outperform” a lawyer or a doctor is a sensationalist claim. But ask the bold defenders of it what they would do when seriously in trouble or sick; would they really put their lives in the cold hands of a robot? A more balanced way to put the question would be to contend that professionals equipped with state-of-the-art fast data advisors, would make a better job. In the end, however greedy a single human being may be, Homo sapiens are, overall, ethical animals. Should we give up all this in favour of a merciless computer program which will always pursue the interests of its owners? The decision is yours.